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Focus: RFID and Automated Identification and Data Collection (AIDC)

Feature Article from Our RFID and AIDC Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's OnTarget e-Magazine

- July 9, 2012 -


Logistics News: Undercover DC Worker Says Job Amounts to Being a "Warehouse Wage Slave"


Walking 12 Miles a Day, and Getting Bad Shocks in the Book Section, Reporter Says; Probably Could Keep Job if She Could Get Used to Hearing How Bad She Is


SCDigest Editorial Staff


We've seen a couple of CEOs find out what life is like working in one of their company's distribution centers as "Undercover Bosses"on the hit CBS television show (and it's much harder than they thought, of course). (See Undercover Boss Hits the Distribution Center for the Second Time, and Paints a Lousy Picture of Work in the Warehouse.)

Now, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine infiltrates another e-commerce distribution center as a regular floor associate for an article she is working on - and you probably won't be surprised that she doesn't like the work. Below, we summarize her report, which is very critical of the life of a DC associate. We are covering her views and report, not necessarily SCDigest's own.

SCDigest Says:


"We will be fired if we say we just can't or won't get better," one temp tells her. "But so long as I resign myself to hearing how inadequate I am on a regular basis, I can keep this job," she says.

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Mac McClelland, a human rights reporter for the magazine that is generally recognized as being on the far left of the political spectrum, tells her saga in a recent article titled "I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave," which recounts her time in an anonymous warehouse after she had applied for the job and got hired as a temp worker just like anyone else might. She kept the actual company anonymous, because, McClelland says, "to do otherwise might give people the impression that these conditions apply only to one warehouse or one company. Which they don't."

It turns out McClelland has worked in distribution centers just as part of her job history earlier in life, and authored a previous article about a temp job at another e-fulfillment center, where she says she labored "under conditions that were surprisingly demoralizing and dehumanizing, even to someone who's spent a lot of time working in warehouses, which I have."

This position for this latest article, for a very large company she tags with the alias Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide, is in a small town somewhere west of the Mississippi (though it seems pretty obvious to us what company this is). Most everyone in the town either has worked there or knows family or friends that do.

Someone from the town's Chamber of Commerce tells her before she starts the job that working conditions are going to be far from pleasant.

"They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they're gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they're gonna increase the goals. But they'll be yelling at you all the time," the woman tells McClelland.

She adds: "It's like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they're going to tell you, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough,' to make you work harder."

And finally, the Chamber staff person recommends this: "Don't say, 'This is the best I can do.' Say, 'I'll try,' even if you know you can't do it. Because if you say, 'This is the best I can do,' they'll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You'll see people dropping all around you. But don't take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you."

Despite having written that previous article, she is hired through a staffing agency rather easily, other than needing "to confirm 20 or 30 times that I had not been to prison."

A computer program asks her a series of questions, including confirming that she can read by entering the name of Michael's Jackson's Thriller album from an image of its cover, and making sure to ask that she is not especially interested in "dangerous activities".

McClelland was being hired for the Christmas season last year, and is told she will be working mandatory 10-hour days (later 12 hours), and that stretching will also be mandatory to help avoid injuries. A $500 bonus will be given to employees who identify a co-worker who has filed a false worker's comp claim and that person is convicted. She will make 11 dollars and change per hour.

As she starts her first day, one worker tells her that she must avoid crying when supervisors yell at her. Can she really be fired for crying, she wonders?

"Yes," the worker responds. "There's 16 other people who want your job. Why would they keep a person who gets emotional, especially in this economy?"


Exec Acknowledges that the Environment is "Intense"


There are many videos for new workers to watch, McClelland says, including one in which an Amalgamated exec acknowledges that the environment in the DC is "intense," not because the company wants it to be, but because "our customers demand it," McClelland quotes the executive.

She says "We are surrounded by signs that state our productivity goals. Other signs proclaim that a good customer experience, to which our goal-meeting is essential, is the key to growth, and growth is the key to lower prices, which leads to a better customer experience. There is no room for inefficiencies."

After training is finished, which includes many warnings on all the ways workers can be killed or seriously injured, she starts working as an order picker. Amalgamated employs some type of labor management system (LSM), because her wireless device informs McClelland how many seconds it should take for her to arrive at each picking location when she receives the next instruction.

"At 5-foot-9, I've got a decently long stride, and I only cover the 20 steps and locate the exact shelving unit in the allotted time if I don't hesitate for one second or get lost or take a drink of water before heading in the right direction as fast as I can walk or even occasionally jog," McClelland writes. "Often as not, I miss my time target."

She finds some strange processes. If she is directed to a location and the item is not there, she says the system makes her scan every other item in the bin location to prove it. This process is supposed to take just seconds, according to the LMS, when it in fact takes much longer, really hurting herperformance if she get very many of these scenarios in a day.

In what is a new phenomenon to us here, as workers race to the break room for their 15 minute breaks, they must stand in line to go through a metal detector, to make sure they haven't shoved something from the DC down their pants.

Between that and using the restroom, she figures she and others get about 7 of the 15 minutes as an actual break, during which she "inhales as many high-fat and -protein snacks as I can."

She notes running back to your position from the break sometimes allows a few brief seconds of conversation - which is better than the previous DC she wrote about, where you could be fired for having conversations with other employees.

There is some type of metal bars in front of a lift that takes pickers and their carts up to the second and third floor picking areas that are dangerous. "Within the last month, three different people have needed stitches in the head after being clocked by these big metal bars, so it's dangerous," McClelland reports "Especially the lift in the Dallas sector, whose bar has been installed wrong, so it is extra prone to falling, they tell us. Be careful."

She says the company estimates she will walk about 12 miles per day on the concrete DC floors. McClelland also finds the frequent need to bend down to the lowest level for picking to be especially hard on her body. She wonders whether this is cool with OSHA. Turns out it is, she later finds, as OSHA doesn't have ergonomic standards that don't directly impact safety.

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Due to some peculiarities with the book storage area, sometimes she goes down to the lowest level, but finds the specific location is actually five feet to the left or right. She, like other workers, sometimes finds the easiest path is to crawl to the right spot, rather than get up and then back down again.


800 Milligrams of Advil Per Day


"You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day," a woman in her late 50s or early 60s advised McClelland when they congregated in the break room before work.

McClelland says the book area in the dry winter air can also deliver powerful shocks of static electricity.

She notes the challenges faced by working mothers, who want to call home to check on their children during lunch. Many leave cell phones in the break room, even though the rate of theft is high, because employees are not allowed to go to their cars at lunch, and cannot take their cell phones on to the DC floor. Noting but "the clothes on your back" is allowed into the DC.

As McClelland's first week progresses, things aren't going so well. Despite having picked 800 items with an hour in her shift still to go, she is only at 52% of her goal. 75% is the minimum threshold for a new hires, she was told.

"A supervisor who is a genuinely nice person comes by with a clipboard listing my numbers. Like the rest of the supervisors, she tries to create a friendly work environment and doesn't want to enforce the policies that make this job so unpleasant," McClelland writes. "But her hands are tied. She needs this job, too, so she has no choice but to tell me something I have never been told in 19 years of school or at any of some dozen workplaces. "You're doing really bad," she says."

In fact, McClelland says there are a number of trade-offs every day between not giving an order picker's body too much of a beating and making productivity goals.

For example, one supervisor tells her, ""You'll feel carpal tunnel start to set in, so you'll want to change hands" when using the wireless terminals

"But that, too, the supervisor admitted, costs time, since you have to hit the bar code at just the right angle for it to scan, and your dominant hand is way more likely to nail it the first time," McClelland writes. "Time is not a thing I have to spare. I'm still only at 57% of my goal."

She notes there are a number of workers who do make their goals. She speaks to one veteran who always hits the targets, and sometimes reaches 120% of the standard. When McClelland asks him if that isn't totally exhausting, he says, "Oh yeah. You're gonna be crying for your mommy when today's over."

She later hears that as long as she keeps telling supervisors she will get better, it is unlikely she will actually be fired.

"We will be fired if we say we just can't or won't get better," one temp tells her. "But so long as I resign myself to hearing how inadequate I am on a regular basis, I can keep this job," she says.

"Zoom zoom! Pick it up! Pickers' pace, guys!" a supervisor says to "motivate" workers on the start of McClelland's fourth day.

Not surprisingly, McClelland takes a very harsh view of this total arrangement.

"I'm working for a gigantic, immensely profitable company. Or for the staffing company that works for that company, anyway. Which is a nice arrangement, because temporary-staffing agencies keep the stink of unacceptable labor conditions off the companies whose names you know," she says. "Temporary staffers aren't legally entitled to decent health care because they are just short-term "contractors" no matter how long they keep the same job. They aren't entitled to raises, either, and they don't get vacation and they'd have a hell of a time unionizing and they don't have the privilege of knowing if they'll have work on a particular day or for how long they'll have a job. And that is how you slash prices and deliver products superfast and offer free shipping and still post profits in the millions or billions."

At noon on day five, having picked 500 items to that point, McClelland decides she has had enough - both physically, and for her article.

"Lucky girl," she says as heads for the exit. "It's only lunchtime, but I've breached the warehouse doors without permission. I've picked 500 items this morning, and don't want to get shocked anymore, or hear from the guy with the clipboard what a total disappointment I am."

Because she left without a week's notice, her pay for the week, by the contract she signed, will be reduced to the state minimum of $7.25 per hour in the check she received.

What do you think of McClelland's piece? Is this an accurate portray of DC life or not? Should it be better than this, or should the workers feel lucky to have a job at all? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

Recent Feedback

This is horrendous and demeaning.  It should not happen in the "Land of Opportunity".

I've been in many DC's in India and did not see this type of situation (maybe they were on their best behavior).

And we worry about how Apple workers at parts suppliers in China are treated.  Maybe we should start examining conditions at home!!!

There's always the complaint in business about "government" overreaching with such organizations  as OSHA, some of whose standards smack of the idiocy of bureaucracy.  The type of situation at “Amalgamated” cries for government involvement to protect people who can't afford to protect themselves. 

Lin Kulp
Brinmar Consulting Associates
Jul, 12 2012

Line up the Allentown Call article about Amazon and this Mother Jones article, then ask the question - which one can you really trust?  Which one reported news and which one is edtorial dressed up as factual?

Mother Jones is a publication that has a clear political agenda; as long as you know the agenda you can apply a strong filter to the noise.

A few points that highlight that the intention of the Mother Jones report is a hack attack article.

  1. Not a single person is actually quoted for attribution; No one.  There is no way to know who said what, where this happened, or what company actually runs the business.  What does Mother Jones have to fear by not saying that this is an Amazon (or whoever) facility?  Could it be that the story could not stand the light of fact checking?
  2. The paintbrush of smear covers several named companies, including DHL / Excel Logistics and UPS.  But they are not the focus of the story, so safe to name and splatter.
  3. Lace enough "facts" from difference sources to help sell the story.  Note that the first three references are Mother Jones blog post by the same writer.  There is the reference to the Allentown Call story (but did not use any of the facts from the story).  There are some Huffington Post articles, and the rest references to statistics.  Even with the perfume the story has a stench of bias.

With a filter in place - lets look at some real issues that any of us in the logistics industry.

Labor Management Systems (LMS) are a real pain to maintain - and can cause as many problems as they solve if applied wrong.  One of the biggest issues of LMS is the distance calculation for travel - and if the XY coordinates are not right - or the locations amiss - the standard task times will be wrong.  That said, how many facilities really expect the associates to ramp up to 100% of standard in the first week?  If that is the expectation of your organization then there is a problem. 

There is a broad line between encouragement and coercion.  While McClelland makes it like it is coercion, that is is not the supervisors who make it so bad, that it is the profit hungry executives of the company, what really is here is a lack of supervisory leadership skills.  Most of where is here is encouragement - poorly executed.  Now, management owns that, if this is factual. (Alas, we can't tell, since there is no attribution, no names, no way to independently check the facts.)

Still, there could be some truth to the story - based on what I see in many operations.   There are operations where there is a burn and churn attitude to staffing.  There are operations that use temp staffing agencies to provide most of their peak load labor.  There are operations where executive management suffers from blindness to what happens on the warehouse floor, the factory floor, in the cab of the truck.  Could it be that those companies are exceptions, that they are really outliers?  Sadly, if this is the only article that you as a consumer ever read about the ecommerce fulfillment industry - you would think that all of the companies operate this way.  

If you are the management of a company, any company, you should be at the ready to have a Mac McClelland, or any other yellow journalist come in and paint your company in the unflattering light. 

Perhaps that is the best lesson to learn from the article.

David Schneider
Jul, 14 2012